Author of La orquideoflora mexiquense
Dennis Szeszko is a man who puts his life on the line for orchids.
During his five-year effort to catalogue wild Mexican orchids, Szeszko was bitten by scorpions, stung by killer bees, nearly stepped on rattlesnakes, cringed at the roar of jaguars, and shot at by a band of drug lords.
It was just part of the job. That’s all.
Before attending MIT Sloan, the state government of Mexico hired Szeszko to study its native orchid populations, conducting wide-ranging field studies where there was often no human habitation. In the end, he conducted the most exhaustive inventory of orchids in the history of the nation of Mexico. The state of Mexico is one of 31 states comprising the country of Mexico.
“I had a Land Rover and I would drive all over the place and cross rivers with it,” Szeszko said. “And take it to places a vehicle couldn’t go. Then I would park it when I couldn’t go any farther and walk for hours. That is the way you do it: explore on foot and do the work of a botanist.”
Throughout the project he inventoried 258 different species of orchids and in the process discovered six new ones. Of those six, he named one Habenaria galeata. “I named it galeata, because galeata in Greek means helmet. It looks like a little helmet,” said Szeszko, who has no formal botanical training yet describes himself as an “orchid whisperer.”
When Szeszko originally approached the government to finance his proposed project, officials were hesitant. But when he repurposed his proposal to take his research and translate it into the commercial mass-production of native orchids for export, the Secretary of Agriculture quickly funded the endeavor.
“They loved the idea that the mass production of native orchids would benefit the Mexican economy and modernize its agricultural economy into one that utilizes cutting-edge technologies,” said Szeszko, who is a former Legatum Fellow.
However, a caveat arose in the early planning stages. The United States forbids the importation of soil in potted flowers in an effort to control disease. So, Szeszko uprooted traditional thinking by developing a hybrid of the orchid genus Barkeria, which naturally grows, without soil, on tree bark and branches. For exporting purposes, he developed a specialized plastic pot, which acts as scaffolding so that the roots of the patented flower could wrap and grow around it, without dirt.
Today, the self-taught orchid specialist has secured major financial backing from an angel investor with an additional grant possibly coming from the Mexican government. With solid backing, Szeszko is currently transitioning his pilot project into a full-scale commercial venture. The United States has a $171 million orchid market; worldwide sales are $1 billion.
Now that his business plan is blooming, Szeszko points to MIT Sloan for providing the encouragement and support to help him follow his dreams. “Before I came to MIT Sloan, I thought the School was a good place to be an entrepreneur. After exiting, I know it is the place to be an entrepreneur. I don’t think you can get the same push, backing, and knowledge at other schools.”
Recently, the state government of Mexico published a large commemorative scientific reference book La orquideoflora mexiquense, featuring many magnificent orchid images Szeszko photographed in the wild. The stunning hardcover—crafted while Szeszko was at MIT Sloan—is available at Hayden Library.